A Conversation About Misogyny

Bill O'Reilly, Donald rump and misogyny

Well, I see that Donald Trump is defending Bill O’Reilly, who has been widely criticized following reports detailing the millions paid by Fox to settle several sexual harassment claims against O’Reilly. The President says O’Reilly “didn’t do anything wrong.”

Speaking of misogynists…

I recent participated on a panel addressing that subject, and since this was the first time I’d been asked to speak on misogyny, I began with the dictionary, which defines a misogynist as someone who hates women. I don’t know that either Trump or O’Reilly hate women–they simply view us as inferior beings created to “service” them.

More generally, as I said during the panel discussion, I really don’t think that people who hate women are the problem: our problem is the men–and women!– who have been socialized into patronizing, paternalistic attitudes about women.

Some of the most offensive of those attitudes come from religion—in some denominations, especially fundamentalist/literalist ones, the doctrinal belief is that women should be “submissive” and subservient, that men should be the head of the household. Adherents of those religions view women primarily as “incubators” and strongly oppose the notion that we should be able to control our own bodies or make our own reproductive decisions.

Those who hold such beliefs are the “hard core” of misogyny, and because feminist arguments are unlikely to have much traction with them, my own approach is to simply write them off–at least in the sense of engaging in argumentation with them. We are more likely to be able to affect those whose attitudes toward women are the result of unthinking acceptance of social stereotypes.

Most misogynist attitudes are simply holdovers from social stereotypes that were once widely held. There were reasons for those attitudes: before reliable birth control, wives really were dependent upon their husbands, and the few married women in the workforce were less-than-reliable employees; when most jobs required physical strength rather than intellect, women were at a disadvantage. Those realities created social expectations about gender roles, and those expectations were incorporated into laws and informed social customs.

Cultural attitudes are slow to change, but they do. (Ask a gay friend if you don’t believe me.)

A couple of quick stories: I was in law school and interviewing for a summer associate job with a law firm back in 1974, and I had three small children. Since that bit of information was on my resume, it seemed reasonable to offer information about my childcare arrangements, and I did so. One of the two partners with whom I was interviewing blurted out, “It’s not that there is anything wrong with being a woman; we hired a man with a glass eye once!”

Several years later, my youngest son was applying to colleges, and had set up an interview with a graduate of one of the east coast institutions to which he’d applied–a lawyer in that same downtown firm. When he arrived, the lawyer asked if he’d had any trouble finding the law office. My son replied “No, my mom used to work here.” To which the lawyer responded,   “Really? Whose secretary was she?”

Comments like those are very rare today.

What we need to remember is that women’s progress—all social progress, really– is incredibly threatening both to religious zealots and insecure men. (And those categories are not mutually exclusive.) We are seeing a backlash, especially from Republican lawmakers: how dare we make decisions about our own reproduction? How dare we demand equal pay? How dare we demand that health insurance plans cover contraception?

We need to remember that the backlash doesn’t represent majority opinion. If most Americans held these attitudes, there wouldn’t be a backlash.

The problem is, some of the most retrograde ideologues are in state and federal legislative bodies–not to mention the Oval Office. We women need to rise up and work to defeat the  efforts of this President and the Republicans in Congress, who are trying to turn back the clock.

A lot of harm can be done if we simply wait for the old attitudes—and the old guys who hold them—to die out.

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on April 6, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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